They Lost Argentina’s Abortion Vote, but Advocates Started a Movement

An abortion-rights supporter in Buenos Aires on Thursday after a bill to legalize abortion was defeated. Women’s groups vowed to shake off the defeat. “We will no longer be silent and we won’t let them win,” said one backer of the bill.

BUENOS AIRES — They narrowly lost the vote.

But as supporters of a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina began to shake off a stinging defeat in the Senate on Thursday, they took consolation in having galvanized a reproductive-rights movement across Latin America and began to consider how to redirect their activism.

A coalition of young female lawmakers who stunned the political establishment by putting abortion rights at the top of the legislative agenda this year seemed to be on the verge of a historic victory with the bill. But intense lobbying by Catholic Church leaders and staunch opposition in conservative northern provinces persuaded enough senators to vote against it.

After a 17-hour hearing, the bill was defeated early Thursday by a vote of 38 to 31, with two abstentions.

“We will no longer be silent and we won’t let them win,” said Jimena Del Potro, a 33-year-old designer who fought back tears as she spoke. “Abortion will be legal soon. Very soon.”

Despite the setback, many proponents marveled that Argentine lawmakers had come so close to passing the measure, which would have allowed abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and fractured the near-total prohibition on abortion in Latin America.

The measure had already been approved in the lower chamber of Congress. Current law allows abortions only in cases of rape or when a mother’s life is in danger.

The bill energized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Argentina in a women’s rights movement known as Ni Una Menos — Not One Less — and enthused women from Brazil to Mexico.

“What Argentina did was mobilize young women and create the memory that we almost won,” said Debora Diniz, an anthropologist at the University of Brasília who helped write a petition now before Brazil’s Supreme Court that challenges the constitutionality of its anti-abortion laws.

“They changed the way we talk about abortion,” Ms. Diniz said. “It’s not just feminists, intellectuals. It’s young women, your daughter, your sister.”

[We heard from more than 1,300 women from over 30 countries about their experiences with abortion.]

Ninety-seven percent of Latin American women live in countries that ban abortion or allow it only in rare instances. Only Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and Mexico City allow any woman to have an early-term abortion.

“Abortion rights was a priority and it will be deeply discouraging to have come this far and fail,” said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But he said women’s rights advocates already had achieved successes, such as the passage of a law that seeks to have an equal number of male and female lawmakers.

“If we make a list of the things we’ve gained and the things we’ve lost, the list of things we’ve gained is much bigger,” said Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer at the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights group in Argentina that favors legal abortion. “Sooner or later, this will be law.”

President Mauricio Macri of Argentina opposed the bill, but said he would have signed it. After the vote, administration officials said they planned to ease abortion penalties in an overhaul of the penal code that will be presented Aug. 21. Women getting abortions can be charged with a crime and imprisoned under the current law, although that happens very rarely.

The penal code changes had been in the works for some time, but they appeared to reflect Mr. Macri’s realization that the reproductive-rights movement in Argentina was now an established force.

“The women’s movement mobilized all regions of Argentina; it was intergenerational and exceeded everybody’s expectations,” said Françoise Girard, the president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, which supports legal abortion. “The new generation of teenage girls who came out in such numbers will not be stopped.”

The organized movement that pushed the bill started in 2015 with the brutal murder of a pregnant 14-year-old girl by her teenage boyfriend. Her mother claimed the boyfriend’s family didn’t want her to have the baby.

A journalist, Marcela Ojeda, despairing over yet another woman’s violent death, posted a tweet: “Aren’t we going to raise our voice? They’re killing us.”

Her anger struck a chord. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched across Argentina, after organizing on social media around the hashtag #NiUnaMenos.

The slogan spread to neighboring countries, including Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia, where it was used to denounce violence against women, demand reproductive rights and draw attention to related causes.

Analysts said the movement’s improbable rise already had begun to change the region in ways that would have been impossible just years ago. The campaign is credited with inspiring debate on a variety of women’s issues, including domestic violence, a subject that has long been taboo.

Ahead of the vote, supporters rallied in Uruguay, Brazil and neighboring Chile, where they gathered in front of the Argentine Embassy in Santiago, chanting and wearing the green handkerchiefs that symbolized the movement.

Many coupled their disappointment at the outcome in Argentina with optimism.

“When you undergo a process like this, you must keep fighting,” said Susana Chávez, an activist in Lima, Peru, who directs the Center for the Promotion and Defense of Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a nongovernmental group. She said activists were already planning a march in Lima on Saturday.

The abortion debate in Mexico has been accompanied by a public outcry over violence against women and a renewed push for gender equality, led mostly by women’s and human rights groups.

Last fall, protests under the Ni Una Menos banner in at least five Mexican cities demanded an end to violence against women. The protests were a response to the rape and murder of Mara Castillo, a college student, after a taxi ride in the city of Puebla.

In El Salvador, which bans abortion under all circumstances, two bills were proposed in Congress this spring that were pushed by women’s rights groups and their allies, opening debate on the issue for the first time.

For Argentina, the debate over abortion tugged at the country’s sense of self.

It is the birthplace of Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s Catholics, who recently denounced abortion as the “white glove” equivalent of the Nazi-era eugenics program.

But the country in recent years has inched away from a close church-state relationship.

In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to allow gay couples to wed — a move the church fought with a vigor similar to its battle against abortion. Francis, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, called that bill a “destructive attack on God’s plan.”

The church had many allies in the abortion debate, including women who spent hours outside Congress in the Argentine winter cold as the debate got underway Wednesday night.

Many expressed relief at the result.

“It was a very emotional day,” said María Curutchet, a 34-year-old lawyer. “We were out in huge numbers and showed that we will defend the two lives, no matter the cost.”

Some prominent female political leaders also came out against the measure, including Vice President Gabriela Michetti.

But Mr. Macri’s health minister, Adolfo Rubinstein, testified in Congress in favor of legalization and estimated that some 354,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year in the country. Complications as a result of those abortions are the single leading cause of maternal deaths in the country, according to Mariana Romero, a researcher at the Center for the Study of State and Society, a nonprofit organization.

While the measure failed in the Senate, it made some inroads. Among the senators who voted for it was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who as president had opposed legalizing abortion.

“The ones who made me change my mind were the thousands and thousands of girls who took to the streets,” she said.

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